The party will use its near £2 million war chest to take its argument to the electorate with potentially two and half years still to go before the SNP’S preferred referendum date of autumn 2014.
Campaign chief Angus Robertson told activists on the final day of the party’s spring conference in Glasgow yesterday: “This is it – we’re off and running. It’s a long race for Scotland’s future and we have been in training for a long time.”
The party has printed almost 1.5 million pocket campaign guides, which were distributed to delegates at conference yesterday, instructing them how to best influence the debate.
They are even told to “wear an SNP enamel pin badge to spark conversations about independence”. “This needs to be a campaign of unprecedented mobilisation and communication by the SNP,” Mr Robertson said.
“It must start immediately to maximise our advantage and secure victory.
“Go back to your local area and make sure we are doing everything we can to be as effective as possible.”
But Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University warned that the Nationalists would need to rely on more than a mass grass-roots mobilisation.And he said that unless the campaign engaged with politicians as well as the public, the Nationalists would struggle to win the argument.
Party chiefs are urging activists to “speak to someone you don’t well about independence – that could be an acquaintance at work or even your hairdresser or taxi-drivers”.
The packs issued to delegates include pamphlets setting out tips such as “ten things to tell your family and friends about independence”.
They also provide links to an “online test” on what independence means, as well as suggestions about how best to “communicate” the argument, including writing letters to the media, taking part in radio phone-ins and join the audiences of political broadcasts such as Brian Taylor’s Big Debate, Question Time, and Any Questions.
Activists are also urged to sign up two new members to the party in the next month – and to ask 25 people in their social media network to “like/follow/friend” the SNP. Supporters have been ordered to target hundreds of key opinion formers in their local areas and to undertake letter-writing campaigns in the media as part of the drive.
First Minister Alex Salmond also insisted yesterday that plans for the 2016 Holyrood elections to be the first in an independent Scotland – if the country votes in favour of secession – represented a “very reasonable timescale”.
The SNP’s independence campaign fund has been boosted by a near £1m bequest from the late Makar, Edwin Morgan, and a similar donation from lottery winner Colin Weir.
The campaign will see Nationalists target individual sectors, with the creation of bodies such as Business for Independence, Trade Unionists for Independence and Artists for Independence to be launched.
An “outreach” campaign will also be undertaken throughout Scotland, with councillors, MSPs and MPs working together to identify “key people in every sector of community life” who can be targeted.
Dundee East MP Stewart Hosie said the campaign in his constituency was aimed at “reaching out” to 500 key opinion-formers, including community groups, volunteer organisations and businesses – and would be replicated Scotland-wide.
“That’s 500 in any constituency in addition to the normal canvassing in phase one,” he said.
“The MPs, the MSPs, working with their councillors and office bearers are in advanced planning stages for all of their meetings with businesses community groups and others.”
Mr Robertson said this was “exactly how we are going to work” across the country as the referendum campaign intensifies. He said: “This is the most important democratic campaign in Scotland ever.
“There are many colleagues who are no longer here who worked very hard for us to have this historic opportunity. Our future generations will be eternally grateful for this campaign which we are all part of.”
But Prof Curtice said there were comparisons between the SNP’s plans and the failed campaign for voting reform ahead of the AV referendum.
“They concentrated on trying to get local people talking to other people,” he said. “It tried to bypass politicians and its campaign spokespeople were not political, but the media did not want to know.
“The arguments that are put forward to politicians are crucial. But what Angus Robertson was putting forward to SNP activists at conference was what he would be expecting them to do in the years ahead – it would be a mistake to presume that that will be the centrepiece of the campaign.”
Health secretary Nicola Sturgeon told delegates to anticipate the “campaign of their lives”.
“Autumn 2014 is our date with destiny,” she said. “If we are to use all of the resources skills and talents that we have to build an even better Scotland, we need real independence.
“Only independence can stop Westminster governments squandering our energy wealth while our older folk struggle to pay their heating bills.”
The official campaign launch will be after the local government elections in May. But already, dozens of “independence roadshows” have taken place in venues across Scotland, including Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Ayr, the Western Isles and East Kilbride and Cumbernauld.
Mr Robertson said: “The Scottish population is in listening mode. They have queries, but when they are satisfied they will vote Yes.”